The industry is putting mounting pressure on the Scottish government to permit the £320 million, 220-kilometre power line from Beauly, west of Inverness, to Denny, west of Falkirk, within the next few weeks.
But environmental groups have accused the industry of trying to frighten the government into making a hasty decision before the case for the new power line collapses.
The electricity companies, Scottish and Southern Energy and Scottish Power, applied for permission to upgrade the power line in September 2005. This prompted 17,000 objections and the biggest public inquiry since devolution.
The inquiry, which heard from almost 200 witnesses over 105 days, ended in February 2008. Its voluminous report was submitted to ministers a year later on 18 February.
Now Scottish Renewables, which represents the green energy industry, is calling for the power line to be given immediate approval. It fears that a delay of just a few months could severely damage prospects for wind power in the north of Scotland.
“This is a litmus test for the Scottish government’s credentials on climate change, “ said Jason Ormiston, the chief executive of Scottish Renewables.
“If anti-pylon groups push government into unnecessary delay on Beauly Denny it will mean a high cost in terms of carbon emissions and disaster for the renewables sector.”
Ormiston called on ministers to send a strong signal for rapid investment by coming to a decision in advance of Scottish Renewables’ annual conference in Edinburgh on 18-19 March. “We stand on the brink of a green new deal,” he stated.
According to the industry, the new power line would directly connect 1.2 gigawatts of wind-generated electricity, and would help deliver a further five gigawatts. This could save seven million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year - about 13% of Scotland’s total emissions in 2005.
Scottish and Southern Energy said that if work was able to start before June this year, then the line could be commissioned in September 2012. But if it was delayed beyond June, “seasonal constraints” would prevent construction from starting until next year, and delay commissioning until September 2013.
But opponents of the power line argued that it will become a “white elephant” scarring the landscape if it is built. “There is no urgency for this decision but perhaps the companies involved are worried that the evidence is stacking up against their shaky case,” said Helen McDade, head of policy at the John Muir Trust, which protects wild land.
“Their only hope is to frighten the government into making a hasty decision. In this year of the Homecoming, the John Muir Trust hopes that ministers will make a commitment to protecting our environment, our tourism industry and our children’s assets.”
There was strong evidence that the line was not needed, McDade insisted. “If the Scottish government makes a quick decision within a few months of the report coming to them, then I think the 17,000 objectors might well question whether the major issues have been properly and fairly assessed.”
Friends of the Earth Scotland took a different tack. “We share Scottish Renewables' aspiration to accelerate development of renewables, but we need to make the grid smarter as well as stronger if new renewables are to quickly replace nuclear and coal power plants,” said the environmental group’s chief executive, Duncan McLaren.
“Our priorities for grid investments are improved electricity storage facilities and demand management tools such as smart meters - which would support a high level of variable renewable capacity - not just new links.”
The Scottish government said that the Beauly Denny inquiry report was now under detailed consideration. “Ministers will take a decision as soon as possible,” said a government spokesman.
“Since the Beauly Denny planning application was submitted in the period of the previous administration, this Scottish government has put in place much swifter planning procedures.”